As a father with five daughters, I’m grateful to be living in our modern times. The Torah teaches us that, long ago, when Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, Eve was struck with a curse: the travails and risks of childbirth and dependence upon her husband. Adam, too, was cursed, needing to wrest a meager livelihood by the sweat of his brow.
Since those times, life has progressed in previously unimaginable ways. The world my daughters are growing up in is a world where women enjoy vastly easier access to God’s blessing.
This winter, my oldest daughter graduated from college and was accepted into an MBA program. She endeavors to use her talents to benefit the Jewish people. At her young age, she enjoys an array of opportunities that even recent generations of women in our family could not have imagined.
Of course, plenty of challenges remain for young Jewish women. Just take the COVID-19 environment. A recent United Nations study suggests that Covid is pushing many women, worldwide, out of the workforce. In my own congregation, a Jewish single mother recounted her choice between losing her job and leaving her 12-year-old son home alone. She chose to keep her job— and her son home, alone, every day through the pandemic.
To navigate this complex world, I strive to point my daughters to the examples of Jewish women who came before them. Starting with Eve, the Bible is rich with female lives to learn from. As the Bible concludes, the Jewish queen, Esther, offers an early example of courageous, female leadership.
In some quarters, Esther’s predecessor Vashti has become a feminist icon. Yet, it is Esther, the protagonist of the Megillah, who illuminates our path until this very day.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in 1878 that Vashti’s disobedience of Ahashverosh was a “first stand for women’s rights.” About 20 years later, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton called Vashti a character who rises “to the heights of self-consciousness and of self-respect.”
In 2016, Time Magazine documented Jewish writers who echoed these voices, and even compared Vashti favorably to Queen Esther, whose actions were said to be “in full compliance with the patriarchy.” More recently this year, Vashti is presented as a protagonist for young children in Leah Rachel Berkowitz’s book, “Queen Vashti’s Comfy Pants.”
Ironically, long before the advent of modern feminism, the Talmud taught us that Vashti was a violator of women’s dignity. A daughter of the Babylonian monarchy, the Talmud relays, Vashti was complicit in oppressing Jewish women.
Moreover, the Megillah does not present Vashti as a heroine. The conflict between Vashti and the king centered around Ahasheverosh’s insecurity. Vashti is introduced to us as “the Queen Vashti” to emphasize her royal status, in contrast with Ahashverosh, who is introduced merely by his first name.
Ahashverosh’s bash was intended to showcase his wealth and consolidate his power. Showcasing Vashti was meant to strengthen that power. In refusing his summons, Vashti advocated for her personal status in the kingship, not a broader cause of women’s rights.
In fact, little is known about Vashti precisely because she is not the intended protagonist of the story. The true heroine of the Megillah is the very person for whom the book is named, Esther.
After she is chosen as queen, Mordechai enraged Haman by his refusal to show subservience before him. Haman promptly resolved to do away with the “the nation of Mordechai.” This leads to the central tension of the story.
Esther, the Jewish queen, is standing next to the one person who can reverse the decree. Mordechai urges her to plead for her people to the king. In doing so, Mordechai points to her chilling reality: Who knows if you have reached royalty for a time like this?
Esther grasps the profound meaning of the moment. She proclaims that she will go unlawfully to the king on behalf of her people, and “If I die —then, I shall die.” As she takes these courageous steps forward, Esther insists that the spiritual power of the Jewish people accompany her. She commands her uncle to gather the nation in prayer for three days on her behalf.
Working within a very rigid system, Esther navigates her path forward in faith, as any misstep can lead to her demise. Curiously, she sets up a series of two banquets for herself, her husband and Haman. Why does Esther bring Haman to the party?
Classic rabbinic commentary interprets Esther’s banquet as high-level diplomacy, as she carefully turns Ahashverosh against his top lieutenant. She passionately presents the real mortal danger she and her people face. Then she points directly across the table to this “adversary and enemy, the wicked Haman.” Upon grasping her words, the king trembles with rage. Thanks to her intervention, the tables are turned and Haman is brought out to hang.
Esther continues to move forward in eradicating evil, calling for the 10 collaborating sons of Haman to be hung in the public square. Finally, her vision extends beyond her own time, as her ordinance established Purim, making the story part of our national memory to this very day.
As we study the Megillah, we come to an inescapable conclusion. The heroine of this story is not Vashti, who, perhaps rightfully, advocated for her royal status. Rather, the heroine is Esther, the Jewish queen. Her bold action brought about deliverance for our people.
In the life of Esther, the Megillah points to a great moral leader. Her vision illuminated the hearts and minds of her own generation. Her legacy of courage and faith is an inspiration in ours.